Purpose, Value, Evolution, Consciousness, Sentience, Life & Emergence of Mind | Terrence Deacon
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just for people who don't know what, what do you do, what are you known for and what's your career Have you been sort of focused on?
Terrence Deacon 5:02
So I'm officially titled as a biological anthropologist, my background is split fairly evenly between neuroscience and human evolution. So for example, I spent my graduate career studying what's unique about the human brain that is associated with our linguistic capacity, how the anatomy of the human brain differs from the humanity of the anatomy of chimpanzee brains and related brains, and how it might be related to language. That's an evolution question I have taught that thought evolution and human evolution, really since the early 1980s. And second of all, I spent a good deal of time doing bench laboratory research focused, in fact, on development of the nervous system, in part, because to understand how nervous systems have evolved, you need to understand the mechanisms by which nervous systems get produced and change in structure. So all through the 1990s, for example, I was involved in procedures involving neural fetal neural transplantation, taking neurons from one species brain, from an embryo species brain, the embryo brain, from one species and planting it in another brain of a different species, which allowed us to look at both how the neurons talk to each other from two different species, and how they mature that is putting in embryonic neurons, you can actually see how they mature in a different brain. So to look at how brains that have been separated, weird, so much of our work was involving involving rats as hosts, and pigs as donors, interestingly enough, it actually was directed also as a major support towards treatment using cell Cell Transplantation treatments for Parkinson's disease, and for Huntington's disease. And in fact, it led to some clinical trials. And I think it will become eventually, the major approach using stem cells, a directed developed from one's own body, so to speak. Since coming here to California, that was all done in the Boston area at Harvard and Harvard Medical School. And since coming to California, although I've continued my work, looking at brain evolution, and how it changes, much of my work has also become much more theoretical in the sense that I've become much more interested in the uniqueness of the evolutionary process that can produce things like information processing, and how that's unusual. As a result, incomplete nature, the book I wrote, the middle of this last few decades, was mostly focused on how it is that material processes chemistry and physics, as we know, it, can come to produce information processes, processes that can be about other things. Brains are about other things, bodies are evolved to be about their worlds. Even the simplest organisms like bacteria. Basically, the information that they produce, and transmit from generation to generation is carrying information about how to survive, there is no aboutness in the chemical, physical world without life. And so it was a real, it's a deep conundrum, both in philosophy, but also in natural science, as to how this comes about. And I tried to take a natural science approach to this, to understand how it is that molecular processes can become, in a sense, how molecules can become about something else.
Nick Jikomes 8:54
Yeah, and one of the things that's really interesting, is, of course, the difference between life and non life. So brains and bodies can be about other things. And it's very, they have very different characteristics from the nonliving world. And at one level, it's all very intuitive, like, you know, even a child can sort of look out into the world and sort of immediately recognize that the living things are sort of fundamentally different from nonliving things. And yet, it's really hard to talk about this and formalize exactly what is different and why this is. And you may or may not remember, but one of the things that you said at the last, the last little bit of our first podcast discussion, was that you thought that the next century was going to be all about reintegrating purpose value, and teleology back into the sciences. And I'll let you define teleology. But of course, this is an directedness. It's like the the idea that you know, when you look at an animal walking around, it looks like it's doing something for a reason that has a goal in mind. And so what exactly is teleology? And why did that become a focus of your attention?
Terrence Deacon 10:00
While became a focus of my attention, in part because it's really behind, not just mind, and our ability to have purpose, and direction and goals, as you say. But even the simplest living process is a process that is aimed at something, it's trying to accomplish something if nothing else, just to keep itself going. The first law of thermodynamics says that matter and energy can't be created or destroyed, they can be inter transferred from one to the other, like nuclear processes, but mass energy, whatever we want to call that substrate of the world, is basically conserved, the total amount of it stays the same. On the other hand, information can be created or destroyed the fact that living things can be born and die, that there can be extinction of all life, or that they can be the birth of life on some other planet or like on the earth. This is telling us that this is something different than just matter and energy, and information. Although we have a way of thinking about information, just as pattern, pattern is everywhere in the natural world. It's everywhere in stars and planets and galaxies, in geometry and geology. But patterns about other patterns, are different matter. How does something become about something? And ultimately, I think the story of teleology the very essence of teleology is this thing that we might use a sort of simple term aboutness. How does aboutness come into the world, and about this has one thing that also other kinds of patterns, pattern relationships don't have, and that is, there's value, there's what we sometimes called normativity. There are there are true representational relationships and false representational racial relationships. In the world of chemistry and physics, there are no good or bad physical processes, there are no good or bad chemical processes. But when life comes into play, there's good there can be good chemistry and bad chemistry, there can be things that are supportive, and things are not. These are normative features, these have value. So value is something that, of course is essential to human life, and essential to how we conceive of the world and ourselves. But it comes into being it emerges out of a world where there wasn't value. aboutness emerges in a world where there wasn't about this before this. And that's a philosophical mystery, but it's also a physical process, it did happen, this transition happened. So as a matter of fact, there must be a story to be told about how that happens, how value and aboutness and purpose come into the world that didn't exist before them.
Nick Jikomes 12:50
You haven't I've never thought of it quite that way. So the laws of physics tell us that matter slash energy can't be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed into a different kind of matter energy are different form. But that's not true. You're saying of information that can be created or destroyed, life can arise from non life, and it can all go away.
Terrence Deacon 13:10
And in fact, one of these that our whole bodies are about is maintaining something that should give them the second law of thermodynamics should spontaneously decay should spontaneously break down. And yet everything about life is to some extent, using the second law of thermodynamics to keep it from having that final effect. And that's a remarkable thing. So it basically says that the origins of life is this weird, you might say, twist of the second law of thermodynamics against itself. And what are things I find really exciting about the very concept of the origins of life, because it's the origins of all these things. It's also it had to occur very simply. It couldn't be very complicated, because doesn't have anybody designing it has to be something that could have happened by chance that could have happened by things just happening together. And yet, this simple process, had to produce something that was radically inversing the logic of causality in the universe. That is, the second law of thermodynamics is being overcome, not for a short period of time, but on Earth. It's been overcome for 3.8 billion years. This is a remarkable phenomenon. Since the second law thermodynamics says that everything of that kind of organization should break down pretty fast. So something unusual happened this and it's remarkable that this very unusual transition in the world happened in a very, very simple form. So it must be understandable.
Nick Jikomes 14:53
And it happened at least once that we that we can tell and you know, maybe we'll get into this later. You know what the differ between life and non life is but it has something to do with this sort of weird inversion with respect to the general physical tendency for disorder to increase over time, a living system should break down. And yet somehow it's organized in a way that prevents it from doing so. You spend a lot of time in the book, talking about things in the negative, meaning, what things are not. And you pointed out that no directed processes developed towards something they currently are not. So what is the significance of this sort of negative quality, the absence of something which directs life towards an end that it's not currently at?
Terrence Deacon 15:36
Well, what it tells us interestingly enough, is that when we think about form or order, we're actually thinking about if we reverse our thinking or thinking about chaotic or disordered things, in a sense being limited, that all the possible ways things could organize themselves to be ordered, or not being realized. That is, one of the things about order about form is that it's not something that pre exists. Plato had this idea, for example, that there were ideal forms. And somehow they influenced the physical world in a not quite perfect way. But in a real sense, what we're really talking about is how things become less than chaotic. When things become more ordered, or just saying that they're less than chaotic, not all degrees of freedom are being realized. And as things become more ordered, just the just the opposite happens, we subtract off degrees of freedom. Another way to think about it, think about a machine, a machine is made up of a bunch of parts. And when they link up with each other and influence each other, what do they do? Well, they all engage in certain kinds of movements, but not others, when a machine is assembled, is assemble so that only certain changes can take place. And if that's true, and it's maintained, that machine will produce a function of purpose, we might build it for that purpose. Now, the building of it was imposed, the purpose is not the machine just keep running. It's what the machine produces. As a consequence, it's not the machine itself. However, if it's held together by screws and bolts, if we loosen a few of them, and we allow some degrees of freedom of movement to increase, it stops functioning. So one of the interesting things about the very nature of function, even as we think about it, in terms of machines, and of course, it's going to get more complex with organisms. But even in terms of machines, we recognize that function is the result of the constraint of what the parts are doing. The function, if the constraints are released and relaxed, it'll start functioning. Now with respect to life, it's a much more interesting and complicated problem. Why because the design is internal, it designs itself to some extent. And its function, its purpose is the maintenance of that design, preserving it against the tendency that it will spontaneously break down. Under those circumstances, it's still the constraints, it's still what it doesn't do. When my body finally dies, what's going to happen is the constraints on the possible chemistry are going to relax. And a lot of chemistry that's being prevented right now, thank goodness will start to take place and very rapidly break down the systems all the constraint chemistry will be gone. So to some extent, death is a chemical increase in freedom. And my life is a constraint something negative, something absent, something is not allowed to happen, something is prevented. So in a sense, life is about prevention, of entropy, about prevention of coming to an end. And that's what makes it interesting. That's why it's negative. But notice that that's also what links it to this notion of aboutness things are about what they're not, again, about an absence and typically, if they're about some constrained result, about some form. And a form is a constraint system. It's something that not all possibilities are there.
Nick Jikomes 19:32
And when we start thinking about constraints and the development of constraints that amount to living forms, think about like the origin of cellular life and the fact that all life is contained in these literal containers that have you know, particular constraints they impose on you know, the, the chemical soup that they contain, you know, you talk about you know, so the question is really, how does on the origin of life side how does something living or quasi living come? from something that's nonliving, how's that even possible? And, you know, one of the things you're that you talk about in the book for for a while is this notion that in the biochemistry of life, many, you know, a very large percentage of biomolecules exhibit these process dependent properties such that they are reciprocally like the products and the producers of other molecules. So they're both the means and the ends, as you say, in networks of synthetic pathways. So you kind of have all of these reciprocal loops that tend to form between these biomolecules, what's the significance of that kind of dynamic when you start to think about the origin of life and the things that you're talking about in terms of constraints. So
Terrence Deacon 20:39
one of the ways that I think we've been misled in the discussion of the origins of life is that we've discovered over the last century and more than a century now, a lot of processes that actually on the surface of it look as though they're reversing the second law of thermodynamics. That is, where there was once chaos, there becomes more orderly activity. The most trivial example of this is probably a whirlpool that forms for example, in your bathtub, when you pull the plug, the water molecules in the bathtub before this are moving at random, bumping into each other in coordinated Brownian motion. But as soon as we pull the plug, water molecules around the drain, begin to organize their movement, so that over time, they become highly irregular, in which almost all the more water molecules are moving in a circle, creating this whirlpool. As it drains out, it turns out that if you were to constantly, you know, disturbed that Whirlpool, say by, you know, your hand messing it up all the time, to actually the tub would drain slightly slower. And it turns out, that when when processes are dumping energy, we sometimes call these dissipative processes, they're dissipating energy. When they dissipate energy quite rapidly, or as they approach more rapid ways to dissipate energy, they become more orderly. Why? Because orderly movement more quickly moves things from place to place. So that if there's a tendency in the world to maximize the flow, and the breakdown of a gradient that has a difference in potential, then it will tend if there's a big pressure to dissipate that potential, like gravity pulling water down this, this hole, then what will happen is it will spontaneously organize, the world tends to self organize. And it's one of the terms we use self organization. But here's the problem, self organization does produce order. That is it produces constraint, not all the possible movements of water molecules are there, they're now constrained. What's happened is this has happened spontaneously. This is why we call it self organization. We see this in lots of other phenomena. But Whirlpool is a good one to start with. The problem here is that self organized processes do produce order and look like they're going against the second law of thermodynamics, in the very process of achieving equilibrium. And in fact, they do it faster than otherwise. So the Whirlpool actually empties the bathtub faster. The problem is, what that says is that if you have processes that spontaneously generate order, they also are using up the energy that drives them fast as possible. And in fact, their hope, if you want to think of them as having a purpose, and and of course they don't, it's spontaneous. It's to break down the very support that it has as fast as possible. Well, to build an organism, you have to produce orderly processes, you have to push something beyond equilibrium, so that it becomes regularized in the same sense. But here's the problem. It can't be just self organization, because self organization would destroy itself. It's in the process of destroying itself. The paradox of bodies is we they have to use chemical self organizing processes to make to build and maintain their order their organization, but cannot let those processes run to completion. How could that possibly happen? Well, one way to do it is to somehow block it, how do you block it? My solution to that is that two self organizing processes that each produce the boundary conditions, the things that make another self organization possible, but also keep it from running to completion. If the two of them reciprocally do that for each other, then what you have is a system that generates or order, but prevents that order of breaking down. So in a very simple answer here is how do you go from processes that are just increasing thermodynamic entropy? And are in the process of destroying themselves so to speak?
How do you go from systems like that to a system that actually maintain produces order and maintains it? And the answer is, if it's going to be dynamic, if it's going to be continuous, it must be systems that, in a sense, are complementary to each other. They each are, in a sense, the boundary conditions, the conditions that make the others possible, and keep them from running over. So our bodies are made up of loops like this 1000s and 1000s of these chemically, that have built up and built up and built up. But that's a threshold that has to be crossed.
Nick Jikomes 25:52
Yeah, I mean, immediately, I start to think about, you know, when you go study biology, in college, you learn about all sorts of signal transduction pathways and energy gradients, and you know, protein networks and things, and all these different receptors and ion channels, and, you know, all of the stuff of the cell. And, you know, most of it is directly or indirectly tied to utilizing or recreating some kind of gradient or some kind of, you know, difference. So, when you think about, you know, ion channels and a neuron, for example, they're allowing things to happen, according to just, you know, the spontaneous physics of the situation, things go from high to low concentration, but there's all these mechanisms in the cell that regenerate those gradients. And if I'm, if I'm hearing you correctly, what you're basically saying is, you can have, you know, these kinds of loops, that are self organizing, that will tend to run down these energy gradients that undermine the ability to continue themselves. But if you take opposing or I guess, complementary processes like this, and you have two of them, and one of them sort of creates the conditions for the other, and vice versa, you can get into a situation where multiple systems are involved in regenerating each other.
Terrence Deacon 27:08
Exactly, exactly. Now, at this very abstract sense of how you cross that threshold. My guess is that there's probably many molecular ways in which this can be realized. I've come up with one sort of model system for talking about it. But I think, I think this is if you think about it, what this says is that at least that aspect of life, this transition, probably can be accomplished, relatively easy with simple parts, simple model molecular processes. And that suggests to me, that is probably at least this first stage is probably pretty widespread in the cosmos, whether it can get complex like us, that's a much bigger question takes much more special conditions. But this is not a very special relationship. And so I think of it as a fairly generic way to think about the origins of life. But notice that this is a version of the origins of life, that is not about copying molecules. This is not about DNA, or RNA, or some some Master Molecule that seems to control things like a manager. This is actually about a process that has to precede that. The real question is, okay, given that, how does a molecule within that process become about other molecules? How does it carry information that organizes what other molecules do, and organizes what other molecules do with respect to the environment, so that the whole system is maintained? This is the next question. So crossing this threshold, I think is not probably difficult. And that the cosmos in general. Going beyond that probably is more difficult. And yet one of the things that's that's quite clear is, once you've got a system that, in a sense, maintains itself and repairs itself, when damaged, when pushed away from its balance of the other parts that are relationship in relation to each other. Then you've also got something that's like memory, it remembers where it was. And once you have memory, you can build, you can add new memory. That is evolution becomes possible because you save information and reuse it. And once you can save information and reuse it, you can add new information or tweaks to that. So this is also one of the interesting things about life is when it first occurred, even though it's incredibly rare, probably in the cosmos. Once it occurs. It becomes incredibly prolific on the Earth once it shows up. You know, just a little after 4 billion years ago, when the earth is just barely cool enough to handle it. It not only continues, but it begins to complexify and does so quite rapidly in terms of cosmic time, a 3 billion years is just a small piece of time. So one of the interesting things about life is that not only is that does it, in a sense, resist the second law of thermodynamics in some interesting ways, and allows itself to persist for long periods of time. It also even gets more complex, that's just the reverse in another way. So as soon as you cross this threshold, because you've got memory for the first time, even if it's complex, distributed memory, made up of a handful of separate chemicals, once you've got this, and that capacity can build on itself, you spontaneously get the increase in complexity, not the decreases, the second law of thermodynamics would suggest, evolution has that feature as well.
Nick Jikomes 30:59
And so you know, when we talk about, you know, the emergence of life, we're going to talk about emergence at that sort of multiple levels, the emergence of consciousness, you've got the emergence of life, you know, this is a term that gets used quite a bit in philosophy and elsewhere. Can you define for people exactly what you mean by emergence? When we say something's an emergent phenomenon? What exactly does that mean?
Terrence Deacon 31:22
Well, one of the problems is the term has been used, as you say, so diversely, it's been used to talk about almost magic, you know, how something that didn't exist, you know, rabbit coming out of the hat. To some extent, we have that feeling when we think about, for example, the origins of life, there was nothing like it there before. It's like pulling a rabbit out of the hat. But what we know about magic is, it's all trickery. You know, it's just how things get organized. And how the causality is not obvious from the start, but shows up eventually. So emergence, first of all, is not magic. But what we do want to explain is how certain kinds of properties of things show up in the world, when they didn't exist before that the case of life that we've just started this conversation on, maybe has to do with something like normativity value. The fact that there can be good and bad chemistry, there's not good and bad chemistry in a cosmic sense. But for every bacterium, and even for every virus, there is good and bad chemistry, we can talk about destroying killing viruses, we've been in the process of trying to deal with how to get rid of the viruses. It's bad for viruses. What we're doing, having human beings that path, this stuff on by coughing and sneezing at each other is good for the viruses. That normativity appeared on the earth, somewhere around three and a half 3.8 billion years ago. That's looks like rabbit coming out of the hat. We use the term emergence to talk about that. What I've tried to do is to say no, emergence has a structure. It's not just magic. It's not just an guessable impossible thing suddenly showing up. It has a structure. What is that structure? I've tried to identify it. In this in the case of life, I've tried to say, look, what we know is the second law of thermodynamics has certain properties. But if you push things in Secondly, the second law of thermodynamics far enough, you get self organizing processes. I've called them Morpho dynamic processes that is formed generating processes, regularity generating processes, and that they emerge in thermodynamic systems, when energy production systems and dissipative systems are balanced to each other in certain ways. And what happens is you get processes that seemed to invert the logic that was happening before that, as you invert, superficially, and locally what looks like what the second law of thermodynamics should have produced, the Whirlpool is more organized. The question is, is there another step like that going to life and what I've tried to describe just a few minutes ago, was how also juxtaposing Morpho dynamic processes self organizing processes with respect to each other, in such a way that they complement each other, also produces another reversal, that is the reversal of these processes that tend to undermine themselves. Life doesn't tend to undermine itself. These are reversals. And so it has this sort of rabbit coming out of the hat appearance. But what I tried to say is that, no, if we actually look at how this actually happens, there's a physical story to be told it's not magic, but it also doesn't mean that it's completely reducible. And one of the ways that people have used the term emergences to talk about. It's, it's not reductionism. reductionism says that everything is going on is just the bumping in of, of atoms bumping into each other atoms in the void and moving around and bumping into each other, and sticking with each other, affecting each other, and so on. Life is not just that what we're talking about is something in addition, that, and here's the interesting part. And this is where we began this discussion. What's being added are new kinds of constraints. New kinds of Prevention's new kinds of absences. This is what information is about information is about what it's not. So what's actually happening is no, we're not adding new kinds of laws of physics. We're not talking about adding new kinds of atoms, new kinds of materials, they could all have been explained with chemistry. In fact, organic chemistry, can be explained chemically.
How the organic molecules get generated, it's also a chemical process. But it's a specially constrained chemical process. So that I think of emergence, as the very fact that new information, new constraints can always be created, and can be destroyed. But when certain kinds of constraints are produced, the kinds of constraints that I call teleology, dynamic constraints, that is the kind of constraints that we see in living processes that have an end that tend to maintain themselves. Once you have that, now you have a system that can evolve can get more complex. And in that respect, what I mean by getting more complex is you're adding more complex kinds of constraints. Our brain is not doing anything that's not possible, chemically, or physically, but it's doing it in a very uniquely constrained in a complex constrained way. It's adding new constraints, constraints can be added, new kinds of prevention, can be added to the world. And what's added is not more stuff. It's more constrained. And I think the reason that we've had trouble thinking about it is we don't like to think about absences being added absences since seems like something that's being taken away. We don't think about complexity, increasing complexity as being more risk reductions. In fact, I think that we have to begin thinking about complexity in terms of prevention of absences.
Nick Jikomes 37:40
Yeah, so So information, you know, when there's more information, you know, more, that's how we sort of think about it in very basic terms. But what you're saying is, information is a reduction in uncertainty. And so when you add more constraints to a system, you add more information to the system, but what you're really doing is sort of preventing it from from taking on many other states. And when we think about information in biophysical terms, the first thing that people probably think about is something like the genome DNA, or RNA. And, you know, the the sort of cartoon explanation of DNA is, it's a blueprint for the organism that contains the instructions for the organism. So on the one hand, you can have information encoded in the genome, that will, that will be expressed as as development proceeds. On the other hand, much of stuff in cellular life isn't actually directly encoded by the genome, there's a lot of these sort of self assembling molecules that do stuff that doesn't strictly depend on what's encoded in the genome. So in thinking about, you know, the emergence of life and the complexification of life, you know, if life is end directed in the sense that it, you know, it's it's, it's wanting to reproduce itself, where does that end come from? Can it be encoded directly in the genome? Or is it sort of coming? Is it coming from somewhere else?
Terrence Deacon 39:02
Well, so. So the first first point is that it had to emerge initially, right? The origins of life is actually about the origins have indirectness. And the end is to maintain the ability to have and directedness. So it's, it's it's a circle in that respect, that as I'm producing something, to make it possible to produce something. That is the case for all life. In fact, that's the, you might say, the beginning of what we want to call self. And this is why it's going to expand well beyond the origins of life. Because what we really want to explain is how self comes into the world. And that's, of course, we want to explain in terms of us, and in terms of what brains do, what consciousness is about, you know, at the highest level, but if we don't understand the nature of self, we can't even get started. And so part of what I wanted to do In this work is to say, Okay, let's try to get the most straightforward, simplest understanding of how self comes into the world. And the way it does is that it, it now constrains what can happen. So that self doesn't disappear. If it gets damaged, it repairs itself, I actually think of reproduction as just a sort of variant of self repair, that I, you know, if, if I can repair myself put myself back together again, that means I can also probably put together a replica of me. And so when I see the origins of DNA, I actually think of DNA as ways of offloading and remembering how it's done. So that it doesn't have to be done dynamically. So that I can have a kind of a, like a written base that has a structure, I can turn these constraints, which are just constraints on dynamics limitations of how things happen. Also, structure represents constraint. And so the structure of a DNA molecule actually encodes constraints. So what we want to say is the DNA molecule, yes, it produces proteins by this complicated process, as well as other things like RNA molecules that themselves can regulate DNA molecules and regulate proteins. But in this process, what's happening is it produces some and not others, the number of possible proteins of 100 amino acids long is astronomical life produces a tiny, tiny fraction of possible proteins. And in this respect, what we can say is that DNA is a way of, of encoding and remembering the constraints by taking what were dynamical possibilities of possible interactions that could take place, and offloading that information onto the constraint of a structure, the structure of a molecule. Now, what's interesting about this process is that as soon as you do that, um, you have something that's more durable than dynamical processes, like the actual interactions of proteins in the cell, the durable thing can stay there because it's, it's easily remembered that the power of DNA, in part is the fact that it's a very robust molecule, it's hard to mess it up. And as a result, it's a great memory system, RNA molecules are not so good, they're easy to break up. But because of that RNA molecules do a lot more regulation. But now here's the thing I like to call this, the, we've all heard of The Selfish Gene story. I like to think about this as the lazy gene story. If processes tend to happen spontaneously in the world, once you've got a bunch of molecules sitting out there, and just because of their shape, and the way they interact, they spontaneously produce structures, they fall together in a way that snow crystals simply fall together in regular shapes. Because of the very nature of water molecules and their geometry. Those are things that if that happens spontaneously, all DNA has to do is to remember the conditions that make it likely to happen. DNA doesn't have to do the work of putting things together. It just has to constrain the boundary conditions that make these self organizing processes happen. One of my favorite examples of a self organizing process like this is the Fibonacci series. Fibonacci series is a series of numbers. 12353 plus five is eight. Eight plus five is 13. So on and so forth, just adding the last two numbers gives you the Fibonacci series. The Fibonacci series is really remarkable, because what it means is that the relative distance between any two adjacent sequences is basically the same.
And this is what's produced, also what we commonly called the golden mean, the Golden Section ratio, the thing that makes spirals regular as they grow out. Well, the one of the most interesting spirals in life is what we call spiral Philo Taxus. What I mean by this is looking at the surface of a sunflower, for example, you see that the seeds are all organized in interesting kind of spiral patterns. In fact, the spiral of the sunflower of has to do with two interlocking spirals that curve in opposite directions, and the number of curves those spirals, curving to the right versus curving to the left and in a sense, crossing over each other like this turned out to be adjacent Fibonacci numbers, so that there's some like in, for example, pine combs. One of the curves is a five the other curve is typically an eight Eight, there's eight in one direction five and the other direction and they inter inter inter fit with each other. Um, however, you can get much higher order relationships and things like sunflowers and things. It turns out that many, many plants are organized this way. Now, there's a real advantage to this organization, because it also keeps, you know, if you've got to stock in a bunch of leaves, it keeps the leafs maximally from interfering with each other. If you want to have a really successful way of capturing sunlight, you want to have your leaves dispersed in such a way that they're minimally out of each other's way. The Fibonacci series allows that to happen. It's a very, very useful series. Well, why does it happen in the surface of a sunflower, it turns out that we can produce the same series by by dropping droplets that will stay in a particular size and will fit with each other into a bowl, they'll begin to form a Fibonacci spiral. We can now do this show this on an electrically charged surface, that little iron filings will organize themselves into successive Fibonacci spirals. These things happen spontaneously, precisely because they're pushing each other out of position in just such a way that new parts added will have a new position, and will be maximally out of position to the last ones. The Fibonacci relationship is very, very precise. But the genes don't have to have the information that says I need to produce five in this direction, and eight in that direction. All the genes have to do is to set up parameters in which they're diffusing elements that diffuse out, and don't allow certain things to grow or show up until the concentrations are just right. So by setting the boundary conditions, the genes don't have to do this, my point of calling us the lazy gene hypothesis, that means that if by accident, these kinds of regularities just happen to show up in life, the genes don't have to make it anymore, they can now just sort of back up and only do the boundary conditions that are necessary. The reason that we can have a genome that's in our body not much larger than the mouse genome, and yet build a body that's vastly more complex, build a brain is vastly more complex, even though we have essentially the same number of genes for building our brain as the mouse does to build its brain is that a lot of those processes, self organizing, the genes have just taken advantage of that. So it's an optimization process. And this is one of the reasons why bodies are even possible, because the genes have also, as I mentioned, before, the constraints can be offloaded onto genes, but the constraints in genes can be offloaded onto these self organizing processes. And this makes it possible to build bodies of incredible complexity.
Nick Jikomes 48:00
Yeah, I was actually thinking that as you were, as you were speaking, how is it that you can have, you know, whatever it is 20,000 genes to create the complexity of a human body. And that's comparable, or even sometimes less than organisms that that look much less complex than us. And what you're saying is, that has to do with the fact that the genes aren't directly encoding, like every single thing that needs to happen in every single cell, they're just creating the boundary conditions, the general, the general boundary conditions inside of which all of these self assembling processes will just happen within within the constraints of those conditions.
Terrence Deacon 48:35
Right. And if you think about it, what we say what we mean by boundary conditions are constraints, constraints on possible interactions. So let's this is again, an example of building constraints upon constraints upon constraints. The cell complexity builds, but not I always tell my students in my neuroscience classes, the number of genes that are necessary to build a mouse brain is roughly the size of the last digit of your little finger. And the numbers of genes, the corresponding genes to build your brain and my brain, which is roughly the size of a pineapple are essentially the same. And yet the information in just the structure of a brain the size of a pineapple, in which every neuron is connected to every other neuron by at least 1000 other connections in both of these brains, the complexity of your brain and my brain is orders and orders of magnitude larger, and yet the information that sets it up is essentially the same in magnitude.
Nick Jikomes 49:41
So going back to something that you touched on earlier. So your book is incomplete nature. That's basically the one that we're talking about. It's a very interesting book and also a very challenging book, given the subject matter. One of the things that was challenging about it, but also rewarding if you if you stick with it. You You had to create new terminology just to talk about some of the some of the concepts that that you discuss in the book. And you mentioned a couple earlier. So you talked about something called Morpho dynamics. So dynamical systems that great form. And then you talked about something called Twilio dynamics. And I'll let you unpack those for people. But the basic idea that I took away was, if you take systems that are away from equilibrium, they'll naturally want to, you know, go from high energy to low energy do basic thermodynamic stuff. And that can create form. So like the Whirlpool example that you used earlier. And if you take multiple patterns like that, and you sort of let them rub against each other in certain ways, they can create higher order patterns that develop interesting properties. So what are these terms? And how exactly do these concepts start to stack on top of each other, to help us think about something like the transition from non life to life.
Terrence Deacon 50:58
So, so the three terms I use, and they talk about what I would say it's just an expansion of the concept of thermodynamics. What I wanted to do, however, was to talk about not just what we call near equilibrium thermodynamics, where things tend to go down to a more homogeneous state, which I call homeo dynamic processes. But then there are these processes, we just were talking about that by virtue of going down to those states do so in such a way that in the process, they generate localized form, that form is transient, it disappears fairly quickly. I call that morphodynamics. I think, to some extent, the term self organization, which is a little broader in its usage, corresponds to Morpho dynamics, but what I wanted was a term that talked about then you might say the feature of dynamics that stands out the form generating dynamics Taleo, of course, refers to teleology and direct it. And so my interest here was to say okay, clearly living processes are dynamical processes. Living processes are thermodynamic processes. Living processes are far from equilibrium, thermodynamic processes, that are dissipating and generating order like a whirlpool, or like the formation of the snow crystal. And yet, they do one other thing. Living processes maintain that capacity. That is they keep things far from equilibrium. They are not just maintaining, generating formed by far from equilibrium processes, they're actually maintaining the capacity to do that, not allowing those processes to run out. And that is, that now becomes not just an end that they go towards. But in that they maintain that unstable living processes are maintaining an unstable distance from equilibrium. We're maintaining ourselves. Now, because we're also self organizing or morphodynamic, we also need to have input of materials and energy, just like the Whirlpool needs. So part of what's going on, is it structured in such a way that it finds new sources of energy finds new sources of material that are constantly being broken down by the second law, but it's to dynamic has a dynamic that's towards an end. And that end turns out to be itself. But there are also sub ends in this process. One end is therefore keeping in touch with a source of energy, keeping away from dangerous processes, those are ends. So in just having an end to maintain yourself, because you're maintained by virtue of constantly taking in energy and material from the environment, and resisting perturbation from the environment. You also have those as as you might say, sub ends. And as things get more complex, there will be more and more sub ends, in his process, to dynamics as a process, that becomes more teleological over time. The ends become more complex over time. And the development of human ends, of course, are much, much more complex. But they're built up by this billions of years process of ends being built upon ends being built upon ends that originally start from just keeping yourself going.
Nick Jikomes 54:47
Yeah, and I mean, I couldn't, you know, what I start to think about here with a background in neuroscience is, you know, if you imagine sort of the simplest pseudo life forms that arose. They're basically you know, going to be some little cell that is, you know, sucking in nutrients from the environment, in order to keep itself going. Once you have that, there's going to be an immense selection pressure to do that, and also create a copy of yourself to replicate. And as soon as you have that you're going to out compete, the things that are simply eating to maintain themselves and not replicating. And if you just sort of roll the clock forward, then you start to think about animals with brains and things like that. Right, what you tend to find in brains is sort of a hierarchy of motivations. And, you know, we always think about the reproductive one being on top, that's sort of the final and the final Tilos. And then of course, right, you've got to drink water. And you've got to do that even more than you got to food because you'll die early without water, and you got to eat food more than you've got to, you know, do these other things. And you sort of get these, these different ends, that stack on top of each other in a hierarchy is that how you start to think about things like animals?
Terrence Deacon 55:52
I do. And there's a second issue with respect to brains, it's very important. And that is that our bodies are to dynamic, they're, they're maintained, they do all of this stuff to maintain themselves as every plant body has every fungal body does. On top of that, animals do something interesting. They have added a component of brain that has its own self, it's a self within the self. So I oftentimes think about the fact that you know, I, I could lose a leg in an accident, and myself would be maintained. In fact, we human beings are attached to this neurological self. But my point about Twilio dynamics, is that Twilio dynamics is generating self, if we want to understand why quitters with nervous systems have a sense of self, it's a sense of self within a self. In some sense, there's the Taleo dynamics of my body, as the indirectness of being alive. But then one of the sub goals of this is a system that begins to analyze all the other possible sub goals that can be there, one of them is about being in the body. So there's an interesting twist here, I like to call this sort of second order to Dynamics, it's to dynamics within to Dynamics, that may maintains itself, it's, it's a kind of self within itself. And this is one of things that we're very clear about in terms of our experience, our reflection upon being alive. I don't worry about, you know, going under the knife and anesthesia, because myself is going to come back again and be maintained. I am worried about dying, however, because the self that's neurological depends upon this other self. But in a sense, we have a very clear sense that part of this mental self is also in an environment of physiological body itself. A lot of what our nervous system is doing is assessing all those features of our body. In fact, that's what they evolved to do, initially. And it runs basically simulations about that body. But now simulations about that body with respect to the rest of the world, in a way that plants don't do. Plants are more directly involved in this. So I like to call all of this sentience in the broadest sense, I think that even bacteria have a sentience in the sense that they respond to their environment, and they react to changes in their environment to maintain themselves. Plants do that as well. Our body does that as well, even when we're asleep, even when we're anesthetized. But there's a sense in which we're also doing that, in a kind of simulation level. And nervous systems are doing that. So it's a self within itself. In some sense. It's a it's a second order. Attilio dynamics is what I like to call it, or you might say it's, there is vegetative sentience, which is more directly related to the world. And then there's subjective sentience, which is creating a simulation of that relationship within that relationship. And so it's it's a much more complicated issue. And this is what makes brains so complicated. What I like to tell people is that although we're very worried about consciousness, trying to explain consciousness, if we can't explain self, we can't even get started with the consciousness story. Because it's, there's a kind of self, this neurological that's different from the self of life. Sort of superimposed on top of, but it's also inside of,
Nick Jikomes 59:57
and so, when we think of but when you start to Think about brains and how they're doing this sort of second order, selfhood thing and doing all of the interesting things that that brains do. You know, when we think about neurons, we often, you know, neurons fire signals, they're these sort of binary signals in most animals that either fire, they don't fire. And we talked about neurons performing computations, and the brain being computer like, in certain ways, to what extent do you think biological brains really are like computers, and to what extent are thoughts and things, you know, cognitive operations, things like that reducible to a series of computations,
Terrence Deacon 1:00:35
I like to say that machines don't think, and brains don't compute. And what I mean by that, I think can be understood in the following sense. That is, the take the parts of a machine, we put them together, the parts are independent of each other, we put them together. And if they work just right in interacting with each other, they produce some consequence. I talked about this early on in our conversation about, you know, you constrain the way they interact. And if you constrain them just right, they produce something. They are not about themselves, they're what they're doing is not maintaining themselves, it's not generating themselves. There's nothing about the cogs in a clock, or the gates in a computer, that are about producing clogs, or producing gates, or maintaining clogs, OR gates. Everything about a neuron is about maintaining itself. It's being disturbed by all kinds of inputs coming in. And it's responding by changing its metabolism and sending out some signals. Every neuron is to dynamic every neuron is alive, is an individual, in some sense, responding to its local environment, which is a bunch of other neural signals coming in, and metabolism as well. One of the things about living systems is that every part of a living system carries a kind of trace of the hole that it's a part of, think about the following sense that when an embryo develops, it starts as a single, ovum, a single egg that gets fertilized. And it's got structure and, and, and chemistry and information. But as the organism develops, and these cells divide, and divide, become different parts of the body, they turn on and off some aspects of the information that was there initially, but to some extent, because they differentiate from a hole that was functioning from the very beginning, didn't wait till all the parts were put together to function. An individual zygote is still a functioning complete functioning organism. In some sense, it's a single celled organism. But in the process of differentiating and producing all of these parts, all the parts, to some extent, maintain a trace of the whole, the wholeness that was there at the beginning, that's never lost, in some sense, and no part of a machine has that every single part of a machine that we put together of a computer, or a clock, or, or whatever, is independent. And it's assembled by putting things together that we're apart. Whereas an organism builds by differentiating what was originally already a functioning Hall. In other words, engineering is in some respects, the inverse of life in the way we produce a complex structure. I like to say that, you know, cognition, we got to start thinking about cognition, as living as a living process. Cognition is a process that I think is also differentiating, like organisms. I don't think thoughts are composed of parts put together. They're differentiated feelings,
differentiated by inputs differentiated by complexified each other by differentiated by new constraints on the dynamics of how the nervous system is working, growing and growing and growing like the constraints of a growing organism, as its differentiating, I think thoughts differentiate, I think the sense is I'm producing differentiate. What do I mean by that? The words I think, are the very last things, the sounds are the very last things to be developed. There's something else that's well before a sentence that's floating around in my thinking process that is staying the same throughout the development of sentences as it is in your thinking. That's not a sentence. It's a thought the the words that I'm producing the sentence is a differentiation of that undifferentiated sort of generic thought. In that respect, we do something very different in computing. However, and this is an important thing to think about, when we try to automate a skill, when I become a really good typist, or tennis player, or pianist, what else is going on is that I'm making it unconscious, in the process is becoming so automatic, so well organized, that it can be run without supervision, so to speak, or with supervision at a very high level, in a sense, what we sometimes call, what computers do we serve, they say a computer is a virtual machine. What do I mean by that is that by organizing the constraints, organizing how the switches are set up with respect to each other, it can emulate the kinds of dynamics that a particular machine could have had. What we do, of course, in a computer is we say that this state and that state and that state, we're just going to describe them as a particular symbolic meaning as having a meaning. And so by running the machine, I'm, it's like I'm manipulating different represent representations different about illnesses. But of course, the machine is just a machine, the aboutness is interpreted by looking at it. Now let's look at an organism doing the same thing. What's going on with the organism is that the parts themselves are in the process of maintaining themselves, what they're doing, in a sense, is keeping the whole system going. But that means that each one of them is already to dynamic, each one of them already has a low level sentience, so to speak. And what we're seeing in the whole is a higher level sentience emerging. What's going on in this process is that it's been about something all along, it's not just been put together, it's differentiated. So what computing does is just the opposite. And we try as we acquire new skills to do something that's a little bit like computing, but we're no nowhere near as good at it. Neurons because they're mostly doing something else don't automate very well, we can do a pretty good job of it. But we can never keep track of our do calculations as fast as our hand calculators can, we can never sort of keep up with computers is the way they do things. But precisely because at no stage are we computing, but we're actually growing information. Maturing information, differentiating information, it's exactly the opposite kind of process that computing is engaged in. So I like to, I like to think, again, that what computers are doing is something in a sense, just the reverse of what brains are doing. And yet they converge on this innocence, that what we would like brains to do, is to do some things automatically. So they're almost like computers. So my ability to type is almost like a computer. And what we would like artificial intelligence to do is something almost like what brains do. What we find, however, is that we're doing artificial intelligence, mostly like we build machines. We don't yet quite know how to make machines differentiate information. And I don't think it's impossible. But I think what we do, what we call computing, is very different than what brains do. Your sound is
Nick Jikomes 1:08:44
sorry. So when you talk about sentience, if I'm hearing you, right, it really what you're really referring to with that word, is the intrinsic tendency towards self preservation, which can exist at the whole organism level, but also at the level of individual cells. And so what you're saying is, you know, every neuron, every cell in the body has this instinct, so to speak, it wants to preserve itself. And that is a very different property than the components of machines like computers that we build.
Terrence Deacon 1:09:12
Absolutely right. And another way to think about it is that because you're far from equilibrium, because you're not a chunk of metal, that won't decay, but because being constantly active, is the only way you stay far from equilibrium. You stay organized, then to some extent, the environment is absolutely critical. Everything that's not me, is critical to everything, that's me. And so sentience is the fact that if you're that kind of a thing, you always our intention with the environment, the environment with respect to what your needs are. Now, whether you're a bacterial cell, a neuron or a whole body, that's true. Nothing Think about a machine is doing that the machine, each part is interacting with other parts and maybe very complex ways. But that interaction has nothing to do with that parts existence. machines aren't involved in their own existence. Everything about life is about existing. I like to distinguish this using, you know, almost philosophical terms existing versus being rocks can continue to exist to exist, that SEC first law of thermodynamics says that matter, as we said, matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. Constraints are because we're made up of constraints, constrained matter and energy interactions. We need to constantly do something to exist, we were beings, we're not just existences, we're being, and we can stop being when these processes fail. So there's existing and as being more beings, we are actively in the process of maintaining and producing existence. You can't say that about any inorganic thing.
Nick Jikomes 1:11:27
And so as we, as we start to think, go from sort of this basic sentience, this basic self preservation, quality that life and even individual cells have, and we start to think about higher order things like, you know, having this sort of second order sense of self, the simulation of yourself, and things like emotion, you know, how do you distinguish between something like sentience, and a consciously experienced emotion? And how do you think about that, in terms of the kinds of dynamics you discuss in the book?
Terrence Deacon 1:11:58
That's a good question. So let me start with the simplest version of this, they cart set us on this problem of trying to solve consciousness and, and, and self and cognition, so in with his Cogito ergo soon, that is, I think, therefore I am, a student, once suggested that we should change this, and I think the student was right. It's, I feel, therefore I'm real. Because you're an organism that is constantly at risk. Breaking down, things going wrong, has to feel because existence is threatened. sentience. Another word for it is feeling to feel. Because every living thing is constantly interchanged with the world, and yet is also separate from the world itself and other in this process, feeling is primary. And so what I mean by vegetative sentience is it's a kind of feeling. And what I meant by subjective sentience is, in a sense, a higher order kind of feeling. My body is feeling but now I'm, in a sense, I've got to simulate the feeling of my body by a higher order kind of feeling. So I use to talk about how brains function, I'm an neuroscientist by background. And what I begin to think about how brains function in these terms, I realized that once we get over the computer metaphor, we start thinking about neurons as chips, sending signals back and forth. I began to recognize that maybe I should be using the same logic we've talked about the origins of life with the origins of life is about how new form of self comes into the world, new kinds of Tilos new kinds of indirectness emerge in the world. How do they emerge, they emerge out of this particular relationship between Morpho dynamic processes, processes that are generating form. Those are all dynamical processes. I now am beginning to think that, in fact, it's not that neurons are storing information that a thought is something dynamical. It's something like a flame something like the whirlpool. It's a dynamical structure. That's the result of millions of neurons or hundreds of 1000s of neurons, turning each other on and off, up regulating and down regulating each other's firing patterns, producing a kind of orchestral piece, local orchestral piece, in which some things are getting louder, something easier and softer. There's lots of neurons firing together in synchrony and dyssynchrony. And in counterpoint, if you each other, I think of a thought like I think of a piece of music. And I think that what we experienced the units that we experience that brains produce, I think are what we call in dynamical processes attractors. But I think it's much more appropriate to describe them as something like a melody, or actually almost orchestral piece.
Nick Jikomes 1:15:26
Yeah, I mean, that's interesting. One of, you know, one observation that's been made multiple times and experimental neuroscience and, you know, the past few years at least, is, the basic result is, you know, you have an animal do something, and it requires the animal to behave. And, you know, we least like to think that the animal is also doing something like thinking. But one of the interesting results that's out there is, you have an animal perform a task run through a maze, or something like this. And you record a bunch of neurons and it's cortex are somewhere to trial by trial by trial a whole bunch of times. So the animal has to make the same kind of decision, many different times over many different trials. And what you tend to find is, when the animal makes decision, a, you find a certain pattern of neural activity. But actually, different neurons are involved each time. So So what's preserved is actually the pattern not the individual cells and things producing the pattern, the pattern itself can be produced in many different ways, by many, many different combinations of neurons. And that starts to sound something like what you're saying.
Terrence Deacon 1:16:32
Exactly, exactly. And what I want to say is that, when we think about pattern, we didn't tend to think about static things. But what we're really talking about here is a pattern across time, with multiple contributors to it. That's why I like the model, the example of music, a piece of music, it has that kind of complexity to it. And the nice thing about that way of thinking about an experience is that it has structure to it. But notice that to produce form like that, this is morphodynamics. This is the process of self organization, how does it happen? It happens in the physical world, by pouring energy through a system, forcing energy through a system. What's happening when these patterns generate in the nervous system, it turns out, we now have a way to recognize this. It's using fMRI or pet techniques, we're actually looking at the fact that metabolism changes. I like to think about the increase of metabolism as being like heating up a system that generating a pattern, or like increasing the flow of water down a trough and increasing as a result, the number of whirlpools form, what makes that happens is to generate new form. One things we have to do is we have to have a dissipative process in which you pour energy through the system. So it shouldn't surprise us that when we're really working at a particular say, visual task, the metabolism of the visual system seems to ramp up in comparison to other areas. Now, it also helps us understand a little bit about feeling. Because what this says is that the dynamics of the nervous system and the metabolism of the nervous system are entangled with each other, they're coupled, you can't have one without the other. That means if you pull metabolism away from some area, the regularity that it's producing, the regular form that's producing will disappear. So think about you know, you've got your, your your orchestra is playing, and basically, you begin to put people to sleep. Well, what happens is the pattern disappears, the pattern gets simpler. And what we find is that when we're relaxed and simple, the patterns are simple as well. When we're very excited, the patterns get more complicated. When we're working on something that what originally made me think about this is worked by a neuroscientist here at Berkeley from now a generation ago, man named Walter Freeman, and he was studying how rabbit olfactory bulbs work. Nice thing about the rabbit olfactory bulb, this is the part of the brain that takes in smell. It's got a fairly wide surface or kind of flat on the surface. And olfactory bulb cortex is a little bit like cerebral cortex. It's a cortex that has made cells in it that are organized in a sort of, not columnar pattern, but but basically a radial pattern. So it's a kind of cortex. What Walter Freeman found is that when rabbits begin to focus on a particular smell, they've learned to recognize this smell. The activity in the olfactory bulb goes from relatively chaotic, to regular pattern. And each smell has a distinctive, regular pattern. So what's happening is that when it's not focused on a particular smell, it's in a what we call dynamical chaotic condition. And as it begins to focus on a particular smell, it becomes regularized, regularize differently for each smell so that you might say, for each odor, you've got a distinct melody that's being played. And like you say, it's the same melody roughly is being played, but lots of different neurons are active each time. But the large scale pattern seems to be common. Now, what's interesting is that when neurons begin to form these kinds of patterns, metabolism is pumped up. So what we see here is that you could turn the story around. And now say, maybe one way to focus attention on smell, might be to pump up metabolism.
So that you can actually now see that metabolism itself, and its increase or decrease is playing a critical role in cognition in the experience of what's going on, because it will determine how these things form. Now contrast this again, with computers, what things we try to do with computers is keep the energy constant, the change of energy plays no role, it can just screw things up if the energy is a problem. Whereas in the nervous system, because it's a living system, changes in energy are also changes in cognition changes in experience. But that means there can also be a tension between the activity that a neuron is engaged in. And whether it's got enough or too much oxygen and glucose, its source of energy, there can be a tension between the activity of the neuron and its metabolism, neurons can run out of fuel. And as a result, they stop firing. In fact, if they run out of fuel too much, they'll die. So what we've got here in a system is in which feeling now actually has an energetic component. Because the energy, of course, is also supplied by the body. And changing the sensitivity of neurons is also something that sensory systems within the body are providing neurons upgrading up regulating and down regulating the amount of metabolism and its distribution. What are things we're struggling with this to try to find out currently, techniques that will allow us to understand, under what circumstances, metabolic changes drive cognitive changes, and cognitive changes, pull up, or drive down metabolic changes. And it looks as though there's a complicated loop in this process in which neural activity gets assessed. And that assessment set is sent down to the midbrain and brainstem, the parts of the brain that say, Okay, now let's shift metabolism of the cortex from where it was before to this new place. So that, in effect, this is a complicated loop between neural activity and metabolism, where neural activity is in one areas, changing the metabolism in another area, which changes its neural activity, which changes the metabolism in another area with changes its neural activity, and so on. Feeling, as I think about it, is first of all, primate primate primary feeling is what it's all about. Every perception, every action is about feeling in this broad general sense and feeling is about this relationship between the information that's being generated, the signals that are being generated, and the metabolism. And when there's a tension between the activity of neuros neurons and their metabolism, the stronger that differences at distances, the stronger the feeling. And so when we when something really startles us, for example, what we see is it drives up metabolism drives up neural activity, and we have a strong feeling. It rises to consciousness. And that's because what's happening in this process is that a system is being driven to act become active, that wasn't active before. Think about this, again, in terms of self organized processes. To get them started. You have to pump energy into them. Once they're going they have a kind of inertia We talked about feeling that we really are focused on as emotions. Emotions have a kind of inertia. It takes a while to sort of gin up the energy, so to speak, to be focused on something, or to stay focused. And sometimes events can suddenly cause that energy to shift, cause energy to go from one part of the brain to somewhere else. And we experienced that also, as an emotion. We use the term motion here, because it's got to kind of inertia. Emotions have a kind of inertia, they don't just go away. And they don't just get ginned up suddenly, spontaneously, it takes effort, it takes energy, change of energy. This is something this is again, why computation and cognition are radically different processes.
Nick Jikomes 1:25:53
What is your general take on the effort in neuroscience to identify neural correlates of consciousness.
Terrence Deacon 1:26:06
So what I tried to do, to some extent is to say, This is why we should be looking for neural correlates of consciousness, it's not in some place in the brain is not in some class of neurons to do at all. There is no homunculus there. But there is self. And remember that self is always this relationship between Morpho dynamic processes. When Morpho dynamic processes couple and support each other. There is a self, there's a locus I think about the various parts of the brain as doing this. But if you think about the relationship between metabolism and neural activity, there are also two self organizing tendencies. And they are playing boundary conditions on each other. What I just described is where neural activity can change the metabolic activity in another area of the brain, and which activity in that part of the brain can now change metabolism and an ever part of the brain, which changes its neural activity, and so on and so forth. You get this complimentary relationship in which each becomes the boundary conditions for the other. That's the nature of self. What we want to explain in consciousness is where I am, I have this feeling in philosophy, it's called qualia, you know, I have this quality of experience. What I'm trying to say is that this is the neural correlate. It's not somewhere in the brain, it's not some neurons in the brain, it's not some particular kind of signal. It's this relationship between the life of neurons, and the activity of neurons between the energetics of neurons, and the information of neurons, because the energetics and the information are entangled with each other. And it's that entanglement. And that entanglement is driven to extremes that we experience something we say, Oh, I noticed that I'm aware of that. So in that, that respect, there's neural correlates of consciousness. But, but if we think about those correlates, in computational terms, we'll miss the locus. It's not somewhere in the brain, it's not some kind of a signal. It's this complicated relationship between the to dynamic aspects of neural activity and its energetic base.
Nick Jikomes 1:28:49
When, when we're thinking very hard, you know, if you're if you're reading an engaging book, or you're solving math problems, or you're playing chess or whatever, it's a kind of mental efforts exercise, we we experience it as being very effortful. And obviously, you know, your neurons are doing stuff and that their metabolism has to go up and down in very particular ways. And yet, when we do these sorts of effortful cognitive activities, we don't really break into a sweat like we do when we're physically exercising, is there some difference between the metabolic effort required to do mental stuff versus move the body around or? Or is there? Is that a trivial difference?
Terrence Deacon 1:29:31
No, I thought it would be a difference at all. I mean, I think the main issue if this has to do is a very different problem in one respect, that is something that we call a metabolic scope. In my body, my muscles can persist on almost no oxygen. They can use glucose, obviously may lose glycogen, to break to get energy, and I can break that break this down with almost no oxygen All we say is that at rest, what we call basal metabolism, its metabolism measured when you're laying down, relax, not doing anything. That's the basal metabolism of my body, I get up and I start to run and work on a treadmill, for example, and suddenly my metabolism goes way up. It turns out that muscle cells have a huge scope. That means the resting or basal metabolism of muscle cells is very, very low, doesn't take much to keep them alive. But they can have a scope in which they can be doing tremendous amount of energy, tremendous amount of energy can flow through them. But in doing so, entropy is being generated. And that's dissipated in our bodies as heat. So climbing the stairs or running on the treadmill, I've shoved my metabolic scope way high. And all my muscle mass, producing huge amounts of flow through this energy. So I only have to go up a couple of flights of stairs before I'm sweating. In comparison, as you're just suggesting, here I am, I'm doing my some exam, testing me to the limits. I never break a sweat. We had somebody say that, well, gee, the nervous system uses so much energy compared to the rest of the body. And that's because the basal metabolism of the brain starts at a higher level. So the metabolic scope of neurons is very shallow. But it because it starts at a very high level and can't be pushed much higher than that. So the metabolic scope is very narrow, the metabolic scope of muscles is huge. What that means about neurons is because neurons have to be constantly active constantly metabolizing, constantly sending signals out, or they die. A neuron has to be constantly active. So its its baseline is very high, we recognize that it's maybe 10 times higher than, for example, most other tissues of the body. So we say that the basal metabolism of the nervous system is very high, it might make you think that brains are very expensive. But because they don't have a very large metabolic scope, it turns out that they're not so expensive. I think there's a misnomer, we think about having big brains is a very expensive thing. It's actually not, for the very reason you mentioned that, you know, climbing the stairs, produces much more, demands much more energy and produces much more entropy. But what this means is that shifting metabolism in this little bit, because neurons don't have a lot of tolerance, above and below this level, it's harder, when you have to push something that is very resistant to being pushed, it takes a huge amount of metabolic shift to do that. And one of the things that we recognize in the brain is that we already over metabolize, we're actually producing more oxygen and glucose, the neurons needs to just stay stay stable. But to push them to go much, much faster, you have to do much more metabolic work. And so in effect, that feeling of effort that you just mentioned, to do something to initiate an activity, there is an effort, I think of that as literally about what it takes to rev up the neurons, you've got to pour more energy into the system to rev it up, to get the system to now produce a regularity to produce a regular structure and attractor, a particular kind of musical result, it takes a lot more energy to do that. We I think we experience the difficulty of doing that as effort as mental effort. We feel it as effort. It's as we say as as effortful as you know, climbing the stairs. But it's a different kind of effort.
Nick Jikomes 1:34:20
In your connecting some of your ideas. So So earlier we talked about some of these negative definitions. So when something's about something, there are constraints that gives you information and having information means a reduction in uncertainty. So there there's many things that are ruled out from being true when you find out that something is true. In the book, you wrote that a thought is about a possibility. And a possibility is something that doesn't yet exist and may never exist. It says no a possible future somehow influencing the present. So what did you mean by that statement?
Terrence Deacon 1:34:56
So think about the thought itself, all the Talk we've just had about brains. What that says is that for every potential result, say we want to produce, I have a mental representation that is normal thinking, in normal conversation, that's all we talked about I have, I have an image of what I want to accomplish, that image has to be maintained, of course, the question is, what kind of thing is it, as we've just described, it's got a structure and a pattern. But of course, it's not the same as the world out there. On the other hand, it was probably generated on the basis of past experiences that have certain forms. And so its form, which is not the form of the world, but it's a parallel structure, a parallel pattern is in that respect, something that is now driving neural activity. But notice that the form is the result of constrained with constrained neural activity. So it's not all kinds of activity, it's not dynamical chaos. It's a significantly limited activity in this local area. That constraint is what constrains our potential movement, why don't do some things and do other things, which are consistent with bringing about that represented future. So in one sense, it's the absence of that thing in the world that I want to accomplish, captured by the constraints, absences in the dynamics, that is actually constraining my activities, selecting some and eliminating others, absences, representing absences, that cause absences in the expression of energy is it's distributed in my body, that therefore it causes me to cause some things to happen, other things not to happen in the world. So in one sense, the informational nature of that loop of causality from something in the world that doesn't yet exist, that I can represent by a pattern of activity, also, the result of constraints to constrain my activity to constrain the way the world changes. This is a series of constraints, a series of absences, a series of things being prevented, we like to think of information in the positive sense. But it's a variant of what you just described. And that is, the reduction of degrees of freedom is also the reduction of uncertainty, the reduction of things that could have happened, that are now prevented from happening. That loop is a loop of dynamical mental causality. It's what we might call agency. But notice that agency is in a sense, ultimately, a loop of Prevention's a loop of absences.
Nick Jikomes 1:38:04
And when we start to think about higher order, cognitive operations, you know, in the first discussion we had, way back in episode 20 of the podcast, it was all about the development, evolution of language, which was tied up intimately with just the general ability to think symbolically. And so you know, when we start to think about things like the difference between basic sensory perceptions that are sort of constructed on an ongoing basis based based directly on the incoming sensory input to the brain, through the eyes, and the ears and the sense organs, how do those types of sensory representations differ from abstract representations or symbolic representations that are only present or predominantly present in humans and certain other species, but absent from other creatures that still have eyes and ears and nose and everything, but don't think at that symbolic level?
Terrence Deacon 1:39:02
Well, of course, that's one of the grand questions of neuroscience and human evolution, as our last conversation focused on that I won't go into some of those features. But the main thing is to recognize that symbolic information has to be built up from other kinds of information. And the reason for that is that symbolic information like words, the size of vehicle, the sounds, the written characters have very little to do with what they represent. The question is, how can something that carries no link to what it represents actually carry representational information? And the answer to that is that it needs to be built up. You can't just start from the top. Yes, we can build a computer language from the top because the computer doesn't have to know it. It means but for you and I, what we have to do is we have to build up, as you say, from sensory experience, the correlations among sensory experiences in our motor activities, and recognize that there are certain regularities there, that I can recapture in regularities between these things that are symbolic, that don't carry these features, but have regularities that relate them. So in one sense, you can think about a sentence as a kind of picture. In which the relationships between the words using the logic of linguistics, of connectives of subjects and verbs and arguments that in effect, it's an icon or a picture of what it represents, in which you've replaced all of the actual likenesses, all of the actual physical relationships with this innocents, substitutions that are only related to each other because we've agreed. If we're English speakers, that we're going to link them up to these other likenesses and other relations that we already have acquired in the world. So we build up this representational system for a very good reason. Because if the only way you can refer to things, or share information about things, is by having signed vehicles that are either like with a represent or are connected directly with what through rep represent, like correlated with or physically a consequence of, or a part of something that's a very limited capacity to represent. The only way to escape those constraints of representation is to offload those relationships, onto sign vehicles, sounds or characters that are not so constrained. But the only way to offload it is to build it up from those. So it requires that we have lots of common experience. Lots of common experience to me. Why lots of lots of common experience of using the words, in certain contexts. The sounds are now correlated. But eventually, when we really wreck represent the world's word symbolically, they no longer have to be physically correlated at the same time. But when I'm learning language, I'm learning it by being correlated. I use the same sound. So think about the problem of identifying there's a classic story by a philosopher named Willard Van Orman Quine, who talks about coming to a native society in which someone points to a rabbit running by and says Gava guy. The question is, this guy, the guy referred to rabbits to brown furry objects to moving object to animate objects to mammal to what? How does the native figure this out now? But coin was trying to say is it just pointing but he called abstention? abstention doesn't resolve it. That's a correlation. That's an index, it points to something.
But if every time a horse goes by, and you say golf a guy, and every time a person goes by, and you say golf a guy, you've got a comparison of icons, an icon is like a picture of something that shares a common form. Well, it turns out that say GABA guy again and again and again, um, basically shares a common form. But pointing to a horse and a person and a rabbit and a dog, and a cat, but not a car. You're now forced to say okay, if GABA guy is all similar, what's similar about all those things? When we learn a language, what we're doing is we're resolving that relationship, taking the iconic relationships, the similarity relationships, mapping them to each other, see how they relate to each other. And then linking them together with these indexes these pointing correlation relationships, and then finding out that we can now find an abstract relationship where I can now say, the Gava guy even though it is not directly correlated, necessarily, doesn't show up at the same time. And it may be pointing to something different like a rat. Have, I now have done enough of a job of figuring out what its reference would be. So now I can abstract it and use it abstractly. But as soon as I can use it abstractly, my representational capacities become huge, because they're no longer limited by iconic or indexical relations. So the question is, how does it get produced in brains? The answer is it has to be produced the same way. We have to build it up from experience from iconic sensory experiences, linking the sensory experiences of the word, the objects, and the uses, and the contexts, remembering how they fit together. But once we build it up, we can sort of so to speak, pull the ladder up after ourselves, we no longer need to have words always correlated with what they represent. And we can now guess, by inference, a new object that might be better called Gava. Guy. In this respect, we've had sets and made things more ambiguous because they're no longer neatly grounded and things in the world. But we've also gained all kinds of freedom to refer to things. Once we've done this, we can do something that no other species can do, which is get inside of each other's heads. I can be provided, providing ideas that will influence what you think, or will piss you off, or make make you struggle to make sense of it. We can fall in love with each other because we in a sense, occupy each other's thoughts, we share each other's thoughts to chimpanzees brought together for the first time can't share their histories, I can't say this is what happened to me last week, I can't say this is what I want. And like, I can eventually maybe these two chimpanzees can discover it by continually being correlated with each other, observing the similarities of activity of each other, but they can never get inside of each other's heads. We human beings live in this world all the time. We live in a world that no other species can live in, which means that we are basically this, the thoughts I'm sharing with you now are thoughts that also were built up from thoughts that other people had. Aristotle is influenced how I think Vidkun Stein is influenced how I think other neuroscientists have influenced how I think, and my experiences have done this. But some of that can be shared. I shared it from them. I'm sharing it with you. And we'll continue to have these kinds of interactions. The very nature of human existence, is this kind of shared cognition, which means to some extent, cognition is not just in my own head, my thoughts are actually something that's distributed, or actually something, it's part of a larger whole. I'm a kind of endosymbiont, in this symbolic culture.
Nick Jikomes 1:48:13
Do you so you know, humans have this pretty unique capacity to live in this world of abstraction built up from from our sensory experience and in our ability to index things in the world by seeing things and pointing to things and interacting with things. And as you said, once we unlock the ability to do the abstraction part of this, it unlocks a lot for us, because now we can refer to our history, we can talk about things in hypothetical terms, I can know something that you're talking about, even though the thing we're talking about is not directly in our field of vision, and so on and so forth. Is Is there also another side to this, that's problematic because this may be also the source of a lot of our mental health issues and other things and why. You know, if you talk to anyone who's into meditation or things like that, it's all about letting letting the thinking and the abstraction part wind down and really kind of getting to the direct sensory experience or what you might call the vegetative sort of awareness part of things.
Terrence Deacon 1:49:15
I think that's right. I think one way we can talk about this is that I like to think about this with what's so nice in philosophy has been called intersubjectivity. That is, you know, my emotions, I can share my emotions with you my excitement about certain ideas, and possibly get you excited about or to get you angry about it. We hold each other responsible for doing simulations of what one each other's experiences are. So, our morality is important because we're holding each other responsible for producing positive and negative experiences and each other. We couldn't do that one of the reasons we don't hold other animals morally right possible for what they do is we realize they can't do that. They can't generate a simulation of how my activities are affecting your emotions, whether it's a positive or negative influence. That's a really powerful feature. And it's, of course, restructured all of human society. And we now have rules about morality, and so on, built upon this capacity of sort of being in each other's heads. On the other hand, because of this, we also know how to harm each other. We know how to make somebody unhappy or scared, or worried. To threaten to take advantage of this capacity, we often think about evil activity, as using this great gift we have against itself. The people who are most evil, or those are not just somebody who's stupidly doing something that harms somebody else. It's somebody who, by calculation is taking advantage of somebody, a torturer, somebody who's kidnapped and somebody in his extracting money out a threat to harm of somebody that you are linked with mentally, and emotionally. It's the source of both what's noble about humans, and what's most horrible about humans, that we don't find another species? I think of this is sort of what happens in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are discovering each other. So they, they, for example, they cover their genitals. Why? Because now they know that the other person can see them, they have a simulation of what it's like to be seen. I think we have an intuitive understanding of his kind of knowledge. But of course, what that means is that symbolic material, virtual possibilities, abstractions, can be upsetting can be disturbing possibilities. And I think because of this, we also have other aspects that are unique to us, I think we have unique kinds of emotion. So the result of how symbols tweak our emotions, we can be ecstatic by looking at a particular piece of artwork or listening to a piece of music, just form. We can be humored by twists of logic. The experience of humor that's an emotion. It's an emotion that's produced by this sort of twist of logic. And yet, it's a remarkably powerful experience. What are these symbols have done is that they have made it possible to juxtapose various complex emotions. Most normal species have separate they occur separately. My favorite one of these is nostalgia. Nostalgia is an emotion about the present about the absence of the past, about something that was present in the past. That was positive, that's not here in the present, that's not so positive. But I'm juxtaposing these two emotional experiences that influence each other, that are in tension with each other that I'm experiencing. At the same time, I'm experiencing the past, I'm experiencing the present, I'm experiencing the dissonance, that the fact that one is not here, one is present, it's an experience of an absence. In some sense, our emotions are more complex than other species precisely because we're capable of this kind of representation. But that almost certainly means that our emotional systems are also capable of doing things getting into emotional states that probably are unhealthy as well.
I also think that just the develop the evolution of brains to make this kind of cognition possible, it's also probably destabilize some of these emotional systems. So they're much more sensitive. I think that there's some basic physiological stories happening here. For example, I think that the forebrain of humans, I including particularly the cerebral cortex, has expanded at the expense of the midbrain and brainstem systems that are regulating the metabolism and the emotions, the feelings that can exist in the forebrain. I think that that has created a unbeknown imbalance. It was a critical imbalance that made symbolic capacities possible capacities which can tweak our and distort our emotions. But the very process of evolution generating a brain that can do that, I think is also made those emotional systems much less stable, much more likely to be perturbed to the point that they become inescapably distorted.
Nick Jikomes 1:55:19
So, you know, going back to the concept of sentience, and linking this to evolution, and eventually want to ask you about things like cultural evolution and processes that are involving many minds simultaneously, rather than just one brain at a time. You wrote in the book, that sentience is not just a product of biological evolution, but in many respects, a micro evolutionary process in action, the experience of being sentient, is what it feels like to be evolution. What What exactly did you mean by that?
Terrence Deacon 1:55:50
So that in a sense, what we think about evolution, and I, I want to say that I want to enlarge this, not just evolution, but you might say the EVO Devo perspective, what I've been talking about is cognition is a little bit also like embryogenesis, a thought, even a perception I think, has to differentiate. And in this respect, being sentient, being sentient, is B is experiencing that differentiation, process. Growth is not on painful. growth does not happen without effort. That's part of the process. And one of the things that's going on in the course of embryogenesis, is that you have to generate something. In evolution, we've actually I think, ignored, a good half of the evolutionary story is beginning to come back into into perspective with respect to the EVO Devo side of things. But the question is, you know, how does novelty get generated in evolution? We've, up to this point, from the Neo Darwinian perspective, say, Oh, it's just sort of, you know, genetic damage, you get mutations, and those things get some things get selected, and some things get eliminated. It turns out, it's not that simple. Life is always about generating novelty, about generating more of itself, by generating excess. Evo Devo is about generating form. A philosopher named Stan self came up with this, I think, a really cute phrase to describe this. He says, natural selection. As you say, Let me think of this, that selection of natural selection eliminates a lot of jargon to get it right, that we think before I say it again.
I've lost it. I'm sorry,
Nick Jikomes 1:57:55
I don't know the quote. But I think it sounds like what you're starting to say is, you know, natural selection is selecting from diversity that's already been pre generated, it's eliminating possibilities that were created, but it's not doing the creation side of this,
Terrence Deacon 1:58:06
right, we know, we know where you want to put a lot more into the natural selection process that it's actually doing. And the quote is something like this, that natural selection of removes what self organization adds that self organization generates regularity generates form. And once you've got a lot of alternative forms, not just noise, but forms, regularities constraints, now, some constraints are better than others for linking the system and maintaining it. Think about thought processes. Now, if thought processes are generating or morphodynamic are generating form, generating music, so to speak. One of the things that perception is doing is selecting on those forms that are more concise, most consistent with what's coming in eliminating those self organizing processes, those melodies, that are not consistent with what's coming in. And therefore selecting the evolutionary process is that self organization is generating form generating structure at various levels of differentiation. Initially, a thought is very undifferentiated. And what we do as we take that undifferentiated thought, and begin to select what aspects of it are relevant and what not, and that helps generate the next level. In fact, part of my analysis of nervous system structure, and now it's become it turns out to be a major way that people talk about the nervous system, sometimes called predict decoding, or generating something that predicts and then natural selection, in this case, not natural selection. But sensory selection says, Okay, those predictions are wrong, these predictions are right, let's put it push it forward. I think in order to differentiate something, you have to generate form, and then select on the forms that are generated. This is happening also in development, we generate tissues, and then we select from them. The brain is in particular, a situation in which this occurs, we generate regular form that's fairly generic in early embryogenesis, as the brain and then we allow the signals being passed around in the brain to select some connections and eliminate other connections, that the development of brains goes through a kind of micro evolutionary process. It's not just embryo illogical, but it's also doing selection. It's generating more possible connections. And then constraining those. Sometimes this has been likened to Darwinian processes. Gerald Edelman, called this Neural Darwinism, but I think this is a general process in which brains generate the complexity they have, in part, the way evolution does on the fly, generating form, selecting on that form, generating new form from that selecting on that form, and so on. And in this process, information is generated on the fly, we remember a few minutes ago, we were talking about how the genetic information to build mouse brains and the genetic information necessary to build human brains basically have the same order of magnitude, in fact, almost the same genes. What that means is to have a brain with much more complexity like ours, is that that information had to have been generated on the fly during development, and is generated this evolution like process. But that evolutionary process involves self organizing processes, generating complexity that are selected against. And in that process, that's always has to be generated as a Twilio dynamic process, in which we're, we've got a stable self, that gets perturbed, that has to re stabilize itself with respect to new inputs, which has to re stabilize itself with respect to new inputs. Now, I think that if we actually wanted to explain how a particular mental process takes place, I think the best place to look is how that part of the brain developed. What's the dynamics that developed the visual system? What's being selected? How's it working? Because neurons don't suddenly become adult and say, Okay, now, I'm not going to do what I did when I was developing, I'm going to now start doing real computing.
I think that everything that we do currently is a variant of what's going on in developing these same structures. That cognition recapitulates, the development of the brain, in this respect, we shouldn't expect that the quote, computation that's going on in an area is different in adults than it was in the process of building that structure. It's just that it's now been shifted, not from major connectional changes, but from strengthening and weakening synapses. It's the same process, it's not changed. So again, my suggestion for good neuroscience is if you want to know how a part of the brain works, first understanding how it developed. What was the dynamics of its development?
Nick Jikomes 2:04:00
Interesting here. You know, for the EVO Devo nerds out there. There's that old idea from the 19th century that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. What you're basically saying is cognition recapitulates. ontogeny, neural ontogeny or something.
Terrence Deacon 2:04:17
Exactly what I'm saying. I think you said it exactly. Right. Yeah. And there's some interesting, I want to say, I think that the idea that hence, eco hecho put together this recapitulation idea in terms of evolution, turns out not to be the case. And I'm not suggesting by this, that we redo developments in every thought is that the dynamics of the process is going to be similar. The dynamics of the process is a differentiation process. And in that respect, it's a recapitulation it's not really doing development. But it's, it's got a similar dynamic
Nick Jikomes 2:05:00
Yeah, but but the dynamic that's present in the adult you're saying was also present during development, it was just one of the many things that were present that was was selected for, because it you know, it matched the sensory inputs coming in or whatever.
Terrence Deacon 2:05:12
Nick Jikomes 2:05:15
When you so I think the subtitle of the book is something like, how mind emerged from matter. And, you know, there's, there's a lot of science in the book, but also a lot of philosophy. And, of course, you know, if you're a student of the philosophy of mind, you know, the, the old, you know, the, the main bifurcation point between people is, you know, whether or not they are Monus, to believe there's sort of one thing, or duelists, who believe there's two kinds of things mind and matter. And so, so your subtitle is how mind emerged from matter. So did the universe once exist in a state where there was no consciousness at all? And this emerged only after material substrates came to be pattern specific ways do you? Do you actually think, you know, there's, there's one thing, and mine does come out of matter, rather than being something completely different.
Terrence Deacon 2:06:05
So again, think about where we started. We started by recognizing that transition to life was not new kinds of matter, not new kinds of energy, but new kinds of absence, new kinds of constraint, new relationships, in which constraints are related to other constraints. So what I think when mind emerges from matter, mind has to be understood in terms of these constraints, the absences? What are the things about the duelist perspective, that there's mine stuff and material stuff? Is it they're both kinds of stuff? What this perspective is saying, No, there's one kind of stuff. And then there's the constraints on it stuff. There's that which is present, and that which is absent. But the absence is a critical part of what's present. No, material is everywhere, all at once. And every time it's constrained, that is, it's in some places and not others, the shape of something has to do with the fact that there are places in space where it's not there, it's absent, every presence has to be understood as being associated with something absent. So mind emerges from that space that is not filled with stuff. So that the Cartesian store which has two kinds of stuff, mind stuff of material stuff, extended stuff, and abstract stuff. Has to be rethought. mechanistically, but it's a mechanism that takes absence, seriously. Hence, the title of the book, incomplete nature. If we think of nature, as only made up of material, or matter and energy, we've missed something. Absolutely. We've missed something that's equally part of the universe. All the constraints. Things are not everywhere, every when things are always constrained. They're always constrained in different ways. And constraints can be added or subtracted, the stuff can't be. So that's how mind can emerge from matter. It's not that it's not that it comes out of matter. The absences were always there. But the absence relationships have become more complex, always embodied in matter. But if you think about it, absences or constraints are always negatively embodied. We just have to recognize that the universe has negative and positive aspects, the stuff that's there, and this and where the stuff isn't. So mind is always there. In one sense, but mind is not there in another sense, because mind is a particular relationship among absent relationships. It's just that the potential was always there.
Nick Jikomes 2:09:32
Is this sort of negative definition? Why it just seems intuitively like these two realms are completely and utterly separated?
Terrence Deacon 2:09:43
Because they are, in one sense, they're separated and yet they're, they necessarily have to be together. You can't have constraints of nothing. And you can't have something that isn't somehow constraint. The has to be there. They're necessarily two aspects of everything in the world. And yet what we tend to do, not a surprise, because we manipulate things with our hands, when we make things, we tend to focus on the stuff that's there and ignore the stuff that's prevented the stuff that doesn't happen. It just, I think it's just a bias that we have. And it's a bias, it's part of language as well if you think about it. But it's not a world in which there's this abstract world of abstract stuff. And there's physical stuff. It's one world. But because absences can be iterated and relation in relation to each other in more and more complex ways. It's that part of the world that can, can grow, can expand can complexify. And as it complexified is, of course, the matter that embodies it complexified. So evolution is possible. Now, there's a deep metaphysical feature here as well, is it tells us about, to some extent, the nature of time itself. Time is about the incompleteness of things. There is never a way that you can complete this. The configurations of matter that configurations that exist now, are always incomplete. Time is the essential incompleteness of the world. But because of this emergence is possible. So I actually think that there's a there's a hidden double entendre in the title. And that's because it basically says the universe is good alien in terms of girdles and completeness proof. There's there's something about the circularity of causality that we've been talking about the necessary relationships between constraints, and that which is constrained. That, in a sense, has this kind of circular undermining character, in which, in which what is present now undermines itself so that it can't be this way, in the next instance. The world is, in a sense, fundamentally incomplete. Therefore, it can't stop. It can't be just now it can't be finished. Our nature, because we are part of this is also fundamentally incomplete. We're constantly in the process of trying to complete ourselves as well as trying to repair ourselves, trying to enlarge and expand ourselves. So I, I think of the title, I meant the title to have these sort of hidden, multiple meanings, that we are incomplete, our very nature is incomplete. The very nature of the universe is incomplete. So reason, we couldn't develop a complete formalism or complete abstraction in mathematics, because of this interesting, self undermining nature of causality. So when I say incomplete nature, I mean it. Nature is fundamentally incomplete. Our nature is fundamentally incomplete. And that's why evolution is possible. That's why consciousness is possible.
Nick Jikomes 2:13:41
Well, I definitely want to thank you for your time. I wanted to talk to you about this, because I've read this book a couple of times. It's a challenging but very interesting book. And so I recommend it to anyone who's who's interested in this general realm of you know, what the mind is and where it comes from, and what its relationship to its material substrates are, are you working on anything new that might be coming out in the near future? And if so, what's that all about?
Terrence Deacon 2:14:07
Good. I'm just about two thirds of the way through a book that's titled, falling up. In verse Darwinism, and life's complexity, ratchet. Now, each of these pieces needs to be unpacked a little bit. Falling up, is about the fact that things are beginning become more and more complex in the living world. But not because of work, not because of forcing them to be more complex. I think the increase of complexity happens spontaneously. I can't. I think that the way life works, is it's inevitable. Natural selection doesn't necessarily say that things should get more complex. Natural selection says okay, stuff gets produced and gets selected and gets fitted to the world. Why is it good? More complex. Stephen Gould said, Well, no, just by random walk by a drunkards walk, he called it things might tend to walk into increased complexity. But life is not going to get more simple in the simplest life. But it can always get more complex. So that maybe just kind of an entropy, like an increase of entropy, like logic produces complexity. This led me to think about something else, which I now call inverse Darwinism. That inverse Darwinism is what drives complexity. Now, this is not to say Darwinism is wrong with is not an answer to Darwinism, says Darwinism is wrong. This is about recognizing that something about the Darwinian story also has a complement. You might think about it like we were talking about these complements of self organizing processes that produce thelia dynamic processes. We've always been thinking in the Neo Darwinian world, that the complement to selection was random variation, with a generation of mutations, a generation of genetic variation of recombination. My focus on EVO Devo over these last few decades, and thinking about the developmental process, particularly development of brains, has made me realize that in effect, that's too simple, that part of the story was not complex enough. Let me give you an example. We've known since the 1960s, and 70s. In fact, some early evidence before this, even that, genes can get duplicated by chance, a gene can be copied and plugged in right next to itself. So now you have a redundant copy. What happens if you have a redundant copy is that if, by chance by error, one of those copies picks up a mutation that makes it not work so well. There's no loss, because it's redundant. You've got a redundant copy here. But if that change, change it slightly, so it doesn't do the original function quite like the first one. It's a change in what you might say nearby that function space that the first one had. But that means that some of what that first one was doing might be done slightly better or differently by this copy. Now, that means that the first gene could actually lose some of its capacity, because now it's redundantly maintained. What that says is that if if things are produced redundantly in living processes, you've got the capacity to allow each of the redundant parts to degenerate a little bit. And if they degenerate, they can also degenerate in ways that complement each other. We've got a lot of examples of this one of the first ones that bothered me had to do with the fact that that we primates, particularly the monkeys, and apes, have to eat foods with ascorbic acid vitamin C in it. If we don't, we get sick and die. In fact, roughly half of Magellan crew died of scurvy as the circumcircle the world because they weren't getting vitamin C. Our bodies need this antioxidant. All monkeys and apes need that antioxidant in their diet. Dogs and cats don't. In fact, almost all other mammals make their own ascorbic acid. In the 1990s, some Japanese researchers actually found the gene in the rats genome that produces an enzyme that modifies glucose, so it becomes ascorbic acid. There's a gene in most mammals that plays a role in producing ascorbic acid.
Well, they took the sequence, and they looked for the sequence. In other species, they find it and lots of other species. They also found it in us. But it's full of noise. It's a what we call a pseudo gene now, in fact, there's a frameshift mutation early in primate evolution, so that no other monkeys and apes can produce a working gene to produce ascorbic acid. As a result, we monkeys and apes have to eat it. To get it ascorbic acid is still essential. It turns out that this began to mutate and lose its functionality. About the time we think that primates began to eat fruit in large amounts. They had redundancy. This function was now being reproduced redundantly. Now out if something went wrong with that gene, but you're eating fruit and everybody's eating fruit, the consequences are not going to be too serious. But as it begins to degrade further and further, now you become addicted to fruit, you need vitamin C, what's happened is that as a result, a number of other things changed. Because Vitamin C is not going to be always available. I'm going to be competing with birds for fruit. Maybe there needs to be other things that happen. So maybe I have to develop a desire to want those flavors. So let's change some of our factory systems. Let's change some taste receptors. So that sour and sweet become much more important. So they actually become positive stimulation of let's change color vision. Most mammals are die chrominance, they don't see all the diverse colors that we primates see. But somewhere just after this process, and roughly a few million years, maybe 10s of million years after this process began. Primates had a gene duplication, like I was just talking about, in which there was a duplication of one of the rhodopsin genes, one of the genes that does color reception in the retina. And the what we call the middle wavelength gene that would have picked up sort of green like stuff duplicated, and the duplicate began to change in acquired mutations that lost some of its sensitivity. So it became less sensitive. But it also became more sensitive to the lower frequencies, and less sensitive to the higher frequencies. And as a result, the G, the original gene became more sensitive to the higher frequencies, the lower frequencies, longer wavelengths, of course, are in the red zone. Now we have three color vision. And we can distinguish all of these color changes. One of the major color changes, of course, the fruit goes through is changing from green to red, when it becomes ripe. When it becomes edible. Primates were selected to figure this out. Birds have always had this capability. Most mammals do not have this capability. Because mammals evolved from nocturnal creatures before the dinosaurs, in which they needed broadly tuned color vision. So they can see lots of lots taking lots of light in the dark. Whereas to see a narrow band of color, you're only taking a little bit of the light that comes to you. But if you're foraging for fruit in daylight, this can now be an advantage. So here we have a situation where one kind of redundancy, the redundancy of something outside the body, allow degradation of something inside the body, and made us more complex, because now we have more complex vision, more complex taste, in fact, more complex metabolism to deal with dietary vitamin C, instead of endogenous endogenously produced vitamin C, we became more complex, because we lost some function. But that complexity was generated by duplicating things, duplicating this visual gene, duplicating some of the taste receptors, and allowing them to modify and degrade fouling up. The reason I've used this title is because degradation happens spontaneously. That's the second law of thermodynamics. That's the increase of entropy. It's curious that this duplication has made degradation possible, which makes complementation possible, which makes increased complexity possible.
So that complexity, the increasing complexity is driven by the second law of thermodynamics is driven driven by degradation of function. But degradation only works if you're producing excess, if you've got duplicates, but everything about life is duplicating things, making excess multiplying our body cells to grow, multiplying babies, with slightly different variant features. Life is about multiplication, and therefore about producing redundancy. So in one sense, I see why call is inverse Darwinism. There are three major steps in the Darwinian story. There's duplication, reproduction, multiplication of babies that carry similar traits. There's variation in that process, which is a degradation so that it's not perfect. It's a degraded replication and duplication. The third part of the Darwinian story is mal Thus, that is that we over produce with respect to how many resources are available. We over produce variety, some of which will be better suited to that world, and some not, and therefore, selection ensues. And we get better fitting to that world as a result. That's the Darwinian story. But now let's think about the other side of the inverse thing, what makes it the inverse of Darwinism sells, duplicated genes are duplicated. That duplication is susceptible to degradation by the second law of thermodynamics, there's degradation. But now the duplicates exists. And they're redundant with each other. They're not competing with each other. Inside the body, they're both producing something. And sexual recombination allows us to sort of shuffle them around in different ways to mix and match. It's a way to discover new synergies. What this says is that it's the Malthusian part, that's inverted. It's not that there's not enough resources for everybody to go around. But there's actually surplus you can play around. It's the play side of evolution, not the worksite of evolution. So what that says is that inverse Darwinism is the other half of Darwinism. It's the complementary side of Darwinism. It works the same way. It's just that one is now through the end and what is not there inverse of each other. But it's the self organizing processes. It's the recombination, the synergizing component that provides natural selection with the raw materials to select. What we've not realized is how complex those processes are, at the metabolic level, at the genetic level, at the epigenetic level, at the developmental level. All of these are processes that are inverse Darwinian processes. And I think that it's also a way to think about how brains work. So my next book, again, following up inverse Darwinism, and life's complexity ratchet. It's a ratchet, because once you get this complexity, you can't go back. Once you've lost the ability to prove sight of and see yourself, you can't stop eating it, you're addicted. Once you get more complex, you can't get simpler. It's really costly to get simpler.
Nick Jikomes 2:27:41
All right. Well, with that Terence, I want to thank you for your time. And thank you for your work so symbolic species and incomplete nature two of the two of the most thought provoking books I've ever read, so those come highly recommended. Obviously, this episode was mostly about incomplete nature, Episode 20, which featured Terence was mostly about the other book symbolic species, and I look forward to reading the new one when it's finished.
Terrence Deacon 2:28:04
New episode coming. Thank you.